“Yes, You Are Allowed To Do That!” One Principal’s Mission to Bring Back Play in School

by Brett Gustafson

As a principal for the last 13 years, I have come to the realization that the biggest threat to the emotional and academic well-being of our children is me – maybe not me personally but principals.  Principals are telling teachers to do away with play in school because, “We need to be more academic.”  The problem is that all the data and the research out there proves that statement 100% false.  Play in all grades, especially the early grades, is necessary for students’ emotional, behavioral and academic success. I am heartbroken to hear parents in my town tell me “kindergarten is too serious” or “my child was labeled ADHD because he can’t sit in kindergarten.”  I am here to tell principals we need to become part of the solution.  This account is one more piece of evidence in a growing pile of data that shows children learn best through play.

Four years ago I was hired to turn around a school that was dubbed “The Worst School in the State” by a, then, assistant superintendent.  I discovered the principal before me made all kindergarten teachers throw out their sand tables, kitchen centers, and blocks to make the early years more academic.  At that time, less than 30% of kindergarten students met the state benchmark for early reading proficiency and there was 350 out of school suspensions in a school of 500 students.  Clearly, the get tough, “no excuses” policies were not working. header_640037029_

Many principals of a chronically underperforming school probably would have continued to push for “more academic” lessons in the early grades, because most principals do not come from early childhood settings.  They are not aware of the research nor do they have any personal experience working with young children. They think of kindergarteners as mini-fifth graders who should sit in their seats and get to work. I am fortunate enough to have a wife who is an early childhood expert who hands me articles to read about play in school and proudly boasts she can teach every Common Core State Standard for kindergarten math in the block center.  With her guidance, I performed a little experiment with my kindergarten teachers.  The teachers and I read articles on the need for play in the classroom and I encouraged them to create multiple opportunities for students to engage in interactive play throughout the day.  One teacher, who seemed like she was on a hidden camera show, asked, “Wait, we’re allowed to play in the classroom?”  It is heartbreaking that the question needed to be asked, but, in most schools, teachers are told explicitly not to let the kids play or “play is for recess.”  I reassured her, “Yes, you are allowed to do that.”

Remarkably, there was one teacher on the grade that wanted nothing to do with this “experiment,” so she became the control group and life in her class stayed much as it had last few years according to district recommendations.   Two of my kindergarten teachers embraced the idea of play in the classroom and flourished.  Jessica Scire, who had been teaching for five years, seemed a bit depressed with her class prior to the experiment, but then, with a big smile, declared, “This is what I was went to school for.  This is why I went into teaching.” She created a play center with a pizza restaurant where each day students created scenes from the restaurant that included wait staff taking orders on paper, delivery drivers, and dinner conversation.  Lisette Garcia was the other teacher who later told me of her subversion, “I’ve been doing play even when we weren’t supposed to because I knew my kids needed it.” housekeeping corner 1Now, with the blessing of the principal ,her kitchen center was brought to its glory. She shared, “It builds their vocabulary, especially for my ELL students.”  Throughout the year, Scire and Garcia incorporated elements of movement, song, and play in all their subjects and the kids thrived.

Perhaps it is not surprising that there was practically zero office referrals in the two kindergarten classes that incorporated play in their lessons.  The students were more engaged and they were allowed to move around the classroom in a manner appropriate for five-year-olds.  The control group class, on the other hand, had practically a referral a day and I was forced to send more adults into that class to intervene with students who had so called “problem behaviors.” 

What was surprising to some was the incredible academic gains the two play classes made this year.  In the class where they created stories in the pizza restaurant, 67% met the state benchmark for kindergarten reading.  In the class with a vocabulary-rich kitchen center, 61% met benchmark and that includes a high number of students whose first language is not English.  These were the highest reading scores in the school’s history.  The teacher who wanted to be “more academic” had just 35% of her students scoring at benchmark. 

blocks 2Next year, we are working on expanding play and movement to all four classes in kindergarten and all four classes in first grade.  It is clear to me, as it should be to all principals, that play is a necessary component of learning.  This should come as no surprise to early childhood educators but many elementary principals are slow to embrace.  I share this account with Defending The Early Years not to boast “Look how great I am!” because, had it not been my wife (who worked with Senior DEY Advisor Dr. Diane Levin in college), I might not have been so quick to try this experiment this year.  I share this because I know there are many well-intentioned principals out there who don’t have the early childhood background to know how crucial play is for learning.  Please share this with them to let them know, “Yes, you are allowed to do that.”

Brett Gustafson is the husband of early childhood educator Libby Rackliffe-Gustafson and the principal of James Curiale School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.   

Senior Advisor Nancy Carlsson-Paige Reflects on the 2016 Network for Public Education Conference

The 2016 Network for Public Education Conference, held April 15-17 in Raleigh, NC, is truly an experience—something hard to describe.  For a few days in April, education and social justice activists from around the country come together in a burst of energy and synergy to share lives and ideas and to build an education movement for equity and justice for all children.

I was glad that Denisha Jones, DEY National Advisory Board member, and I attended because our session was the only one focused exclusively on young children.  Our panel was called T-E-S-T and Not PLAY is a Four-Letter Word:  Putting the Young Child and the Teacher at the Center of Education Reform.  Susan Ochshorn, early childhood author and journalNPE 2016 3ist, moderated, and we were joined by Michelle Gunderson, first grade teacher and early childhood leader in the Chicago Teachers Union. We covered many issues in a short time including the decrease in play and active learning in classrooms for young children, the disproportionate effects of corporate education reform on black and brown children and those in low-income communities, and the need to strengthen our advocacy for young children.  Lots of folks attended the session and I was really glad we were there to connect early childhood issues to the larger landscape of education reform that were the focus of the conference.

Many people came up to me over the course of the three days in Raleigh to tell me how they follow DEY, appreciate us, and benefit from using our materials.  It was really heNPE 2016 2artening to realize that we are voicing important ideas and issues that might otherwise not be accessible to teachers and parents.  People are using the papers we’ve put out in a variety of ways as well as our fact sheets, and many say they read our website regularly.

At the conference, we learned about many new documentary films being made about the current state of education in our country.  All of these films and how to order them are listed on the NPE website.   In a separate session we saw a “fine cut” preview of the almost finished documentary Backpack Full of Cash.  This film is being made by Sarah Mondale and Vera Aranow who made the PBS series called SCHOOL which received so much acclaim.   Their new film unwraps the movement to privatize our nation’s schools, telling a straightforward and understandable narrative through the eyes of the communities affected.   The film should be out in the coming year and I think its time is right.

On Saturday, we listened to a riveting keynote speech from Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of NAACP, about the history of racism in our schools and the continuing reality of systemic racism that permeates our society today.  Rev. Barber is a gifted orator who can move his listeners to new levels of awareness by his artistic crafting of words and powerful delivery.Themes of charter schools, over-testing, privatization, racial justice, poverty, global education, democracy, and public education ran through the speeches and sessions of the conference, helping all of us to heighten our understanding and also our resolve to continue our work.  I felt re-energized about our work at Defending the Early Years, proud of what we do, sure that we should keep on.

Maybe next year YOU will want to attend the Network for Public Education conference—you won’t be disappointed!

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Learning to Count to 14 the Common Core Way and the DAP Way…

Learning to Count to 14 the Common Core Way and the Developmentally Appropriate Way – What is the Difference? Why Does it Matter?

Unfortunately, in too many kindergartens today, even many of the best trained teachers in play-based, developmentally appropriate practice say they are being pressured into teaching fact-based, “one-size-fits-all” math lessons and find that play-based activities are severely curtailed, if not banned.  This situation deprives young children of the opportunities they need now more than ever to develop a meaningful foundation for mathematical concepts in developmentally appropriate ways (Kamii, 2015; VanHoorn, 2015).  It undermines their ability and enthusiasm to use math to figure out real problems in the real world.  And having these meaningful learning experiences with math in school is increasingly important in today’s world, as media and technology take up more and more of the time many young children used to spend developing the foundations for mathematical thinking in their own uniquely created hands-on play activities at home (Levin 2013). If we want to optimize young children’s early math development and learning, we much return to high-quality, play-based activities, where well-trained teachers connect math learning to how children learn and to individual children’s interests and needs (Exchange, Jan./Feb. 2016).

Please read more in thmathforexchangee attached article by DEY’s Senior Advisor, Diane E. Levin and DEY’s co-director, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, which was originally published by Exchange Magazine in the Jan/Feb 2016 edition.

 

Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children

LivelyMindsIn the wake of the Common Core academic push down on America’s kindergartners, a new report by Lilian G. Katz argues that excessive and early formal instruction can be damaging to our youngest children in the long term. Today, Defending the Early Years is proud to release Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children.

Author Lillian G. Katz, Professor Emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, argues that the common sense notion that “earlier is better” is not supported by longitudinal studies of the effects of different kinds of preschool curriculum models.  Furthermore, her report maintains that a narrow academic curriculum does not recognize the innate inquisitiveness of young children and ultimately fails to address the way they learn.

“Young children enter the classroom with lively minds–with innate intellectual dispositions toward making sense of their own experience, toward reasoning, predicting, analyzing, questioning and learning,” says Dr. Katz.

“But in our attempt to quantify and verify children’s learning, we impose premature formal instruction on kids at the expense of cultivating their true intellectual capabilities – and ultimately their optimal learning.”

While the report concludes that an appropriate curriculum for young children is one that focuses on supporting children’s in-born intellectual dispositions, some basic academic instruction in early years is needed. “Academic skills become necessary for students to understand and report on their own authentic investigations,” explains Katz.  “These skills can then serve as a means to the greater end of fostering and advancing children’s intellectual capabilities.”

Watch and share this video about this new report!

Download and read the full report here: Lively Minds: Distinctions between academic versus intellectual goals for young children

Help us spread the word about the importance of intellectual pursuits for young children using social media!

Consider tweeting:

#CCSS replaces wonder with worksheets, investigation with memorization. Preserve the lively minds of children! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e53S8dnh0IM

Premature academic instruction comes at a cost for youngest students @dey_project https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e53S8dnh0IM #2much2soon

Earlier is not better. The lively minds of children are dulled by mindless bubble filling @dey_project #2much2soon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e53S8dnh0IM

We are rethinking academic vs. intellectual goals. Earlier is not always better. @dey_project #2much2soon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e53S8dnh0IM

Do young kids need to learn a lot of facts?

At the Washington Post yesterday Valerie Strauss published Do young kids need to learn a lot of facts? This essay by Ed Miller and Nancy Carlsson-Piage is a follow-up to their recently published column which criticized the process of the development of the Common Core State Standards for early childhood (PreK to 3rd grade) – a process that did not involve early childhood educators. Strauss then published a response to Miller and Carlsson-Paige, A Common Core Standards defense written by E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Yesterday, Strauss published Miller and Carlsson-Paige’s response to Hirsch. Here is an excerpt:

We’re grateful for Professor Hirsch’s response to our critique of the K-3 Common Core Standards because it confirms our main point: that people without experience in child development or early education (like Hirsch, an English professor) are the ones prescribing what is best for young children and their teachers. Meanwhile, those teachers and others who study children’s development and learning were left out when the standards were written.

Many Common Core advocates favor the corporate education agenda: privatizing public schools through charters, vouchers, and online learning, and judging teachers and schools by standardized test scores. Hirsch believes, along with these “reformers,” that children’s heads need to be filled up with facts. …

Read the entire essay here at The Washington Post.

A tough critique of Common Core

In today’s Washington Post, Valerie Strauss posted a much-needed critique of the Common Core State Standards for early childhood education on her blog The Answer Sheet. Written by Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Ed Miller, this article shines a spotlight on the faulty process surrounding the development of the early childhood (Pre-K through 3rd grade) section of the Common Core State Standards.

Here is a snippet…

Recent critiques of the Common Core Standards by Marion Brady and John T. Spencer have noted that the process for creating the new K-12 standards involved too little research, public dialogue, or input from educators.

Nowhere was this more startlingly true than in the case of the early childhood standards—those imposed on kindergarten through grade 3. We reviewed the makeup of the committees that wrote and reviewed the Common Core Standards. In all, there were 135 people on those panels. Not a single one of them was a K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional.

Not only were early childhood educators excluded from committees developing the standards, their feedback was not included as well. This includes feedback from some of the most prominent leaders in the field. Could you see that happening in any other profession? Read the full article here at The Washington Post.

Courageous in Seattle

There is a bit of a standardized testing revolt brewing in Seattle! About a week ago, the teachers at Garfield High School voted unanimously to boycott the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test. Soon after, the teachers at Ballard High School joined them. Will more follow? DEY shares this story in an effort to inspire other educators to stand up against policies that are harmful to children.

You can read about the MAP boycott in the words of teacher Jessie Hagopian, who writes,

WALKING the same halls once trod by Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Bruce Lee, Brandon Roy and Macklemore makes teaching at Garfield High School exhilarating.

When I look at the students in my history classes, I see young people who may be the next to turn the world inside out. Garfield has a long tradition of cultivating abstract thinking, lyrical innovation, trenchant debate, civic leadership, moral courage and myriad other qualities for which our society is desperate, yet which cannot be measured, or inspired, by bubbling answer choice “E.”

Garfield teachers voted last week, without a single “no” vote, to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, test on ethical and professional grounds. Our student government and PTSA both voted to support us.

Why did we take this stand, now, against this test?

I graduated from Garfield in 1997, went to college, did Teach for America in Washington, D.C., came home, got my masters in teaching at the University of Washington and returned to teach in the “Dog House.”

The standardized tests I took as a student at Garfield were moments of great misery, because they made me feel unintelligent. I had talents, but there were no test questions on whether I could play piano, coach my little sister in pitching, or identify a problem in my community that needed action and write a letter to the editor about it.

Read the entire piece here, in The Seattle Times.

Take a few moments to the comments posted after Hagopian’s piece.  A number of them are from elementary teachers who are also unimpressed with the MAP test for their grade level.

For example:

As an elementary school teacher in SPS, I applaud the staff at Garfield for doing what most of us would have loved to do several years ago. There are other flaws that impact students at the elementary level and I haven’t read them much in comments on the blogs and sites that offer stories this week and last to this boycott. I would love to share.
The test is stressful to little children. High readers in intermediate grades (3-5) will be asked questions that really throw them for a loop. Once a student of mine got irritated with the test and started writing everything down that the test was asking her that she didn’t know. There were 11 items. They included alliteration, iambic pentameter, and personification. These are not things that enrich the life of a 9 year old.

and

Elementary aged children have their reading assessed via the DRA. This assessment is done one to one between student and teacher. I’ve found the results to be more reliable than placing a 5 or 6 year old child in front of a self administered computer exam (MAP). Elementary aged children are also given MAP three times a year to assess math and reading. At the end of the year, one week after MAP testing, students in grades 3-5 take the MSP for reading and math.

As Hagopian sums up:

Garfield’s teachers are preparing students for the real-life tests they will face, and reject the computer multiple-choice rituals that fail to measure grade-level content — not to mention character, commitment, courage or talent.

The boycotts in Seattle are important, as Race to TheTop and the Common Core State Standards are bringing even more computer-administered standardized tests to our classrooms. DEY’s Nancy Carlsson-Paige has published a personal message of support (along with her son, Matt Damon) to the teachers of Garfield High. To show support to the Garfield teachers, DEY encourages you to write to their school board and the superintendent. (Thanks to Susan Ohanian for the contact information listed below.)

superintendent@seattleschools.org

schoolboard@seattleschools.org

You can also write to the teachers whose names have appeared in the news.

Kit McCormick (English teacher)
Jesse Hagopian (History teacher)
Mario Shaunette (Math teacher)

Garfield High School
400 23rd Ave.
Seattle, WA 98122